Tonken Gets 63 Months in Prison

Times Staff Writer

Former Hollywood fundraiser Aaron Tonken was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison Monday for defrauding donors and underwriters of star-studded charity galas he organized.

Tonken, 38, pleaded guilty last year to one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud.

As part of a plea agreement, Tonken received the minimum sentence of 63 months in prison from U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer in Los Angeles. The fundraiser also was ordered to pay about $3.8 million in restitution.

In court Monday, Tonken apologized for his wrongdoing and said he was eager for his life “to move forward into a new chapter.”


But more trouble looms for Tonken, who filed for bankruptcy protection this year. Tonken and some of his former business partners have been sued by California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer for allegedly bilking charity donors and underwriters. The case is pending.

The federal government, meanwhile, is investigating others who may have knowingly helped Tonken carry out the fraud by soliciting funds and setting up bank accounts.

Tonken, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Zwicker, is no longer seen as vital to the government’s probe. His cooperation agreement fell apart after the government came to believe that Tonken had fabricated two e-mail threats, allegedly sent to him by associates who knew he was assisting prosecutors. Although Tonken denied the government assertion, prosecutors refused to reduce his sentence.

They also were not pleased with Tonken’s decision to sign a book contract with publisher David Dunham.


“If he sells his story for money, that would have an impact on his credibility with a jury,” Zwicker said.

But Tonken’s lawyers said their client still wanted to help -- in exchange for a reduction of his sentence.

“We are hopeful that things can work out in the future and that other people who have been involved criminally will get their punishment,” said attorney Alan Rubin, who represented Tonken in the federal case. “Aaron did something wrong, but he came in and faced the music and accepted his punishment. There are a lot more people involved in this than Aaron Tonkin. We just hope the government doesn’t leave him as the only one.”

George Bird, another Tonken lawyer, was even more pointed. He said it was politicians and celebrities who “benefited from Aaron’s work.”

“Unfortunately, the charities did not receive the funds that rightfully should have gone to them due to the greed of celebrities themselves,” Bird said.

Zwicker would not comment on the specifics of the federal investigation.

Tonken, a fast-talking high school dropout, arrived in Hollywood 12 years ago with no connections. After living in the Beverly Hills backhouse of actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, Tonken gained a foothold in Hollywood by approaching aging entertainers and second-tier stars eager to participate in charitable events.

Eventually, he had the clout to deliver some of the biggest names in show business and politics for charities and political fundraising. Perhaps his highest-profile undertaking was a glitzy dinner honoring then-President Clinton on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in L.A. in 2000. Proceeds from that event went to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.


Tonken was ordered to begin serving his sentence Sept. 22.